Exclusive Interview with TWR President Lauren Libby (Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009)
Article reproduced with the permission of The Christian Post (Singapore edition)

Much has been written about the remaining unreached people groups or that portion of the world where most of those live who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thanks to the invaluable contributions of the late Dr Ralph D Winter, the unfinished task has been delineated in clearer terms than ever before.

Far less, however, may have been proposed in the way of an effective method of reaching these vast hundreds of millions of human individuals.

In an exclusive interview conducted on June 5 at the TWR-Asia office at Technopark@Chai Chee, new TWR president Lauren Libby spends a half hour opening up on the vast and astoundingly effective ministry started more than 50 years ago by Dr Paul E Freed and its incalculable potential as a world mission bandwagon for the Church in the developed and developing world to hop on.

The Christian Post: To start us off, for the sake of our readers, can you perhaps tell us what does TWR actually do in the places where it has a presence and where does it have a presence exactly?

Lauren Libby: TWR has a presence in 165 countries around the globe and we broadcast either by radio or by digital means or by satellite in 225 languages. To put that in perspective the BBC broadcasts in about 65 or 70 languages, the Voice of America broadcasts in about 65 or 70 languages; we broadcast more than 220 languages at a budget that is far below that of those two organisations.

CP: And I understand that your ministry works with a very comprehensive range of people in many places and for a great variety of purposes. Can you give us some idea of the potential reach of your mass media, in terms of the percentage and number of unreached people groups and individuals being reached and could you perhaps enlighten us on the task that still remains?

Libby: Well obviously the task is still huge because Jesus, when He gave the Great Commission, He said to go to the whole world and so we take that very literally and very seriously. Our mission is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world by mass media so that lasting fruit remains. It’s not only to proclaim, but it’s also to help people, who once they have met Jesus personally, grow in their relationship with Him.

Mass media is changing dramatically, and what’s true today won’t be true two weeks from now. It’s the same thing with broadcasting. While many parts of the world still listen to radio – we broadcast from 14 locations around the globe – the internet has become a huge distribution platform in places like India and China. We are one of the few organisations that can cross-promote between those two platforms, so we not only broadcast to the listeners, but we can also provide resources through digital means.

CP: It is understandable that mass media methods may be able to spread information very widely, but how does TWR actually make converts and even disciples and what ensures that listeners respond to the Gospel. I am assuming that conversion and discipleship requires a personal touch to it so how does TWR achieve lasting fruit through mass media alone or do you rely on more than just that?

Libby: Let me give you some examples. In Indonesia, there are over 3,000 listener groups that get together. These groups gather around a radio and literally form a community. One of the things we do is to promote on-the-ground discipleship.

In some places this is more effective. In other places, we promote resourcing local house churches. I have seen a dozen Roma Gypsies – a marginalised group in Europe – gather in a little room with a dirt floor, a stove on one side, two beds, and a baby slung in a hammock between two water pipes. Meeting once a week, they remind me of a first century church fellowshipping together, and showed me a place where we can really meet the needs on-the-ground, not just through broadcasting, to produce lasting fruit.

The examples given above have to do with working within communities. As we move into the digital age, one of the things we are going to be working on is creating virtual communities. This is already being done in the gaming industry. So why not in Kingdom work as well?

CP: You work in so many different contexts and cultures. How do you ensure that the Gospel and other information which is spread is relevantly presented to each social and people group in each context and can you give some specific examples of different programmes being used in different contexts specially tailored.

Libby: Contextualisation is very important for the spread of the Gospel. We make every effort to take materials, and cater it to the local audience. In our case, a producer in each country will take the spiritual materials and contextualise them with local stories and cultural examples, to help the local audience understand the message better. It is mainly through our local producers that we achieve contextualization in our programmes.

CP: And what are the limitations if any of a mass media approach and how can they be overcome?

Libby: There are limitations to every delivery means of the Gospel. A ministry like The Navigators – where I worked for 30 years – specialises in individualised and small group presentation. The challenge is the rapid movement of the Gospel. In the case of ministries like TWR, there is mass media capability, but the challenge then lies in nurturing people in the small group setting.

That is why our goal is to work together with local churches. We see ourselves as a resource rather than competitor in relation to these congregations. And the way in which we work hand in glove with local churches is that we raise an environment of the Kingdom of God and then the churches come along and provide nurturing for the newcomers and converts. So the local church is really the key in most countries.

TWR International creates the atmosphere for people to grow but then the local TWRs provide the ability to the local churches to be able to get people together and get them into fellowship and begin to provide for their nurture. When mass media can work with the church, I think that’s the best of both worlds.

CP: What would you say are the advantages of a mass media approach especially in the context of unreached people groups and how does it actually supplement the traditional missionary method and the church ministry and in what contexts is mass media necessary as a mission method and in life?

Libby: I think mass media can blaze the way into a people group. Returning to the example of the Roma – and examples can be found in other contexts as well – what we do is we put a culture around that group of people. The Roma have never had a broadcast in their language before, so when we begin to broadcast in the Roma language, it has a tremendous effect and in this way mass media can provide the context for the Gospel to begin to flow throughout the people group.

And as we’ve gone in we’ve actually seen churches and local fellowships that have been formed as a result. It started with a 15 minute broadcast a day. We even put together a collection of Roma music by local Christian artistes and this provides an identity for that group of people and prepares them for growth and transformation. In this way, mass media can put that environment up over a people group very quickly. You would probably find the same examples across Asia where we broadcast, be it China, Mongolia, Myanmar or Thailand.

The challenge is getting them to listen to the broadcast. We do that by distributing radios around the world, which has worked well because most cultures are oral cultures, even developed ones such as America, except we don’t admit it!

CP: And do you see mass media or for that matter Christian media playing an increasingly important role in the 21st Century?

Libby: You bet! The role of the media will be important in creating an environment for the Church to minister in, and I think mass media can probably do that better than any other type of operation.

One time, we signed on a Christian radio station in Colorado Springs when there wasn’t one before. Five years on, and even in today’s digital age, it was amazing how different churches came together, and it became the congregating place for the different churches in the area. Mass media can do that because it’s not tied to denominations or any particular theology, and it provides a means for people to come together.

CP: What does TWR really hope to achieve through your mass media presence in many places around the world and to what extent would you say this has been achieved around the world?

Libby: Again, our goal is to proclaim the gospel to the whole world. As we move forward, there is a role for TWR as we move into the digital age to deliver more spiritual material for people as they begin to investigate who Jesus is and begin to grow in their relationship with Him.

CP: Now why is it important for churches and believers such as in Singapore to sow into and co-work with the ministry of TWR and how can they be of help?

Libby: Singapore is one of the most spiritual resource-rich places on earth. I was reminded of that when I spoke at a fellowship here two weeks ago.

There is a strong church presence in Singapore. TWR can come alongside the local church to supplement and complement the local church. TWR also provides an outlet for missions. Paul says in Philemon, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”. A vital part of church health is its missionary outreach. We find that churches which engage in missions, whether with TWR or otherwise, are healthy.

It’s almost like spiritual breathing. Many times as believers, we are always inhaling and inhaling and inhaling, and if we don’t exhale once in a while, our lungs will burst! What we can do is help the church or an individual exhale spiritually.

In my own spiritual life, it’s probably the strongest when I am relating to people who are not of the same faith. And so, be it congregationally, denominationally or individually, TWR provides an opportunity for people to exhale spiritually in the missions world.

If anyone is interested in joining us at TWR, we would be very happy to talk to them, because people are carriers of the gospel. Electromagnetic radio waves and digital media can only go so far. We need to have the human aspect of it. So if anyone is interested in becoming a part of TWR, we’d love to have them contact us. Every time I speak at a function, there are always three or four people coming up and giving me their card, because God has been speaking to them. I believe that God is calling people who have very specialized functions in the body of Christ, and some of them, He’s going to call to co-labour with TWR. Just as he has called people to be business-people, and he has called people to be in journalism like yourself, he is going to call people to do vocational Christian work.

I believe that God is calling certain people to be with us in TWR, and so we want to make sure the net is cast broadly.

CP: And what would you say are the three most important facts about unreached people groups that you have observed through your ministry and the three greatest misunderstandings that people have about them?

Libby: I think number one is the fact that Jesus is relevant in every culture, that He loves them and wants to reach them. Now Jesus could send angels to do that if He wanted to, but His Church of human beings is the primary carrier of the gospel.

The second thing is the need to ask the Lord to provide a first generation of believers within a particular people group, who will then perpetuate and propagate the gospel throughout that people group.

The third thing is to make the gospel a part of their culture, contextualising it so that people feel that the Gospel is a part of them.

I think the first big misunderstanding is that all people groups are the same. We all have our basic human needs and tendencies, but the way we express those comes from our cultural background people are not the same around the world.

Another thing is the misconception that people in more “Christianised” places like Latin America don’t need the ministry of the gospel because it has already been reached by the gospel. I think that’s a wrong assumption. Millions of people are born every day and so there are always new people who need to be exposed to the gospel. Just because you did it 10 years ago doesn’t mean that new people are currently being reached by the gospel.

The third common misunderstanding is that people just need to embrace the Gospel and don’t need further help. Everyone needs help. When I became a believer, I had a lot of questions and I probably would not have survived if I did not have a group of people who got involved with me and my life.

CP: What would you say is the main role of TWR in a place like Singapore?

Libby: Our main role is to provide an umbrella of the gospel over the whole world no matter where, and how we do that. In Singapore, we need to keep a lookout for ways to utilise emerging technologies. There will probably be things that will come out in the next 10 or 15 years that we haven’t even thought of today. Who would have thought ten years ago that we would have a device like this phone that could be used to send email and SMS? Ten years from now, there’s going to be something else. So the question is: how do we maintain and stay on the forefront of an emerging technology? Technology is a wonderful thing and I think as believers we need to be using every potential outlet we can find to dispense the gospel in a place like Singapore.

CP: And what are some of the main challenges in mission fields that you would like Christians in Singapore to pray for and with you?

Libby: One of the greatest challenges I face is deciding which opportunity to take. There are so many opportunities today it is absolutely incredible.

Singapore is a small geographical country but when you think about it, in terms of its influence, it’s huge! Singapore historically has been a missionary sending base for various organizations, not just TWR, in the last 40 or 50 years.

The missions effort from here is incredible. I know Singaporeans all over the world that have answered the call to worldwide missions. Because of its economic and faith base, Singapore is a great place for Christians and organizations from which to go into the rest of Asia. My prayer, and I hope the prayer of Christians in Singapore as well, is that the body of Christ in Singapore realises the resources that have been put at their disposal for missions.

CP: What’s your goal and hope during your term as president of TWR?

Libby: My goal? It’s to try to get Jesus back here as soon as we can! Scripture says that the gospel must first be proclaimed to the whole world before Jesus returns, so we must have missed someone, somewhere…we haven’t got the job done yet!

As an organization, one of the things that I want to do is develop the next generation of people and leaders who will use mass media to take the gospel into the world. Every leader is simply a link in a chain. I’m a link in a chain and there needs to be another link after me. So one of my goals is to see us recruit the next generation into TWR and also develop the next generation of leaders for ministry.

CP: How’s your work in TWR similar to and different from your previous role in The Navigators?

Libby: Well I’ve been a closet techie all of my life. I’ve always enjoyed mass media, I started broadcasting when I was 13 years old in the United States, and I’ve always had an interest in it whether it is in print or electronic media so TWR gives me an opportunity to do some of that. With the Navigators, my wife June and I spent 30 years developing individuals and spiritual leaders in small groups . I enjoyed my time with the Navigators, but what TWR does is that it brings a convergence of the things I like to do.

I really like it – in fact I pinch myself on the way to the office to think I actually get to do this! Also, I get to co-labour with people from 20 to 25 different nationalities. What a unique privilege! How many global communities do you know actually get to have the experiences we do and the fun of talking to people all around the world about Jesus? It’s a great opportunity!

CP: I would like to return to the topic of discipleship. How does TWR actually disciple locals to in turn disciple other locals?

Libby: We are co-dependent on the local church, fellowships and organisations. Just as different people are gifted – you have a set of gifts that are different from mine, and mine are different from yours – I believe organisations have different gifts too. We plant the seed, and even though we help develop leaders for local congregations with our church radio kits and Seminary On The Air, the actual church-planting is done by the local church and fellowships. As we partner with organizations with different gifts, you begin to see discipling happen.

Should TWR stop doing mass media if we are not doing individual discipleship? I don’t think so. And should people doing individual discipleship stop because they don’t have a large reach? I don’t think so. I think we are mutually co-dependent on each other and we need to realise that, and what’s so wonderful about the body is the interdependence of the body of Christ.

CP: Do you have any final comments or words of encouragement for the readers?

Libby: I think this is the greatest time to be alive in human history. We have resources that are available to us today that 10, 15 years ago – even five years ago – people would have dreamed to have.

And there are new things that are going to be happening over the next five or ten years. Today’s digital arena is probably where radio was in the 1930s. All these hasn’t caught Jesus by surprise because He created all this technology, and we’re just finally beginning to figure it out. That’s what’s so exciting about it and what makes it such an adventure.

Not only do we get to have the privilege of telling people about the greatest person in the entire universe, but we also get to have fun doing it by discovering the means that He built at creation. Anyone who’s contemplating engaging pre-believers with the gospel either on a personal level, a corporate level or a mass media level over the next 10 or 15 years, is going to have a great time!

Read also “TWR Chief: Singapore Among World’s Most Spiritually Affluent Countries”